30 Years of True Romance: Tony Scott’s Directorial Triumph

September 17, 2023 - Movies

Tony Scott enjoyed quite the career, starting with 1983’s The Hunger and culminating in the 2010 action flick Unstoppable, starring Denzel Washington and Chris Pine. In between, the man directed Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop II, Days of Thunder, The Last Boy Scout, Crimson Tide, Enemy of the State, Spy Game, Man on Fire (one of my personal favorites), Déjà vu, and a remake of The Taking of Pelham 123, among others — all great, or at least watchable, slices of entertainment directed with Scott’s style and panache.

Still, if you were to ask me which film in Scott’s massive oeuvre stands out as his best, I would happily direct your attention to the 1993 classic True Romance.

Seriously, the re-watchability factor on this dark comedy is through the roof. Thanks to an amazing script by Quentin Tarantino, True Romance is endlessly quotable: “I’m the Anti-Christ. You got me in a vendetta kind of mood. You tell the angels in heaven you never seen evil so singularly personified as you did in the face of the man who killed you.” And it features one of the greatest ensembles ever assembled.

Let me list them off: Christian Slater (in his best role), Patricia Arquette, Dennis Hopper, Val Kilmer (voice and cameo as Elvis Presley), a near-unrecognizable Gary Oldman, a very young Brad Pitt, Christopher Walken (in the film’s best scene, opposite Hopper), scene-stealer Bronson Pinchot, Michael Rapaport, Saul Rubinek, James Gandolfini, Tom Sizemore, Samuel L. Jackson, and Chris Penn.

Phew. Talk about an all-star cast. Throw in a quirky, offbeat score by Hans Zimmer, some ferocious jabs at the Hollywood machine, an abundance of pitch-black humor, violence, romance, crime, and heart, and you have yourself a delectable cinematic treat that gets better with every viewing.

Oh, and there’s a s— ton of cocaine.

Clarence Worley, a lonely and comic book-loving movie theater employee, meets a call girl named Alabama Whitman. Despite her profession, they fall deeply in love and decide to get married the very same day they meet. However, things take a dark turn when Clarence accidentally steals a suitcase full of cocaine from Alabama’s pimp, Drexl Spivey. Realizing the danger they’re in, the newlyweds go on the run with the stolen drugs, setting off a violent chain of events.

Of course, this is all just an excuse for Scott and Tarantino to deliver a stylized and intense narrative about love, crime, and the consequences of one’s actions via absurd dialogue, morally complex situations, and a murderer’s row of memorable characters. A lesser director would shrink under the weight of the production. Scott, for his part, recognizes the brilliance of the script and allows his actors room to breathe.

Check out this scene between Hopper and Walken — as stated, the best moment in the entire film. Also, a warning, the scene contains strong language!

Too often in his films, Scott leaned on over-stylized editing and visuals to move from Point A to Point B. This was the problem with Domino, Déjà vu, and even Unstoppable — all entertaining, for sure, but too kinetic to fully enjoy.

In True Romance, the director steps aside and lets Tarantino’s dialogue do the heavy lifting. Oh sure, Scott delivers his patented sunset-infused cinematography and rich color schemes. Except here, this approach doesn’t distract from the overarching narrative.

As Roger Ebert noted: “The universe in question could best be located inside the inflamed fantasies of an adolescent male mind – and not any adolescent, but the kind of teenage boy who goes to martial arts movies and fantasizes about guns and girls with great big garbanzos. It is the kind of film that will make the best 10 lists of such supporters of the decline of civilization as Joe Bob Briggs.”

True Romance relishes the grime and grit of society’s underbelly where wack jobs like Drexl lurk in rooms lit in striking red and blue hues. Each scene follows a similar pattern — characters engage in tense conversations that explode in a cacophony of violence. Having seen all of Tarantino’s films, this approach might appear like old hat. In 1993, this was the future.

There’s also Clarence and Alabama, two innocent, naive souls capable of abhorrent destruction, but only out of self-preservation. The pair meet early on at a movie theater, spend the night together, have sex, and wake up the next morning to find that they’re in love even though she’s a prostitute and he’s a deadbeat working at a movie rental store. The couple’s bright-eyed positive attitude contrasts with the savageness surrounding them – they are perfectly comfortable in this downtrodden world, but that doesn’t prevent them from seeking green pastures.

Moreover, thanks to fascinating quirks, such as Clarence’s imaginary conversations with Elvis Presley, these characters are complex, driven by love and intense emotions. While their impulsive actions are extreme and unconventional, everything they do serves as a reflection of their circumstances and the world they find themselves in. I find them likable and endearing, as memorable a movie couple as you’ll ever see — think Bonnie and Clyde, albeit with a touch of Sailor and Lula from David Lynch’s Wild at Heart.

Scott also deploys an abundance of incredible side characters who pop in for a spell and stand out in their own unique way. Pitt delights as Floyd, a perpetually stoned character who lounges around watching television.

Hopper pops up for a banger supporting bit as Clarence’s righteous father, while Pinchot delivers his single greatest performance as a sleazy movie producer with a, um, bad drug habit.

Scott relished testosterone-fueled action pictures, but I found his character-driven work more interesting. The Last Boy Scout is a moody character study that captivates despite its action-heavy third act, while Crimson Tide spins an enthralling yarn about two men — played by Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman — challenging each other’s ideologies during an intense wartime situation. Even Man on Fire spends a great deal of time establishing Washington’s conflicted hero before diving head-first into extreme violence.

In other words, Scott strove to make films about tortured souls doing their best to navigate a world teetering on the brink of destruction. He found glimmers of hope nestled between the carnage and allowed his characters to eventually overcome their problems and live to see a greater tomorrow.

True Romance remains the best version of Scott’s hopeful, aggressive vision — it’s an engaging, emotional, witty, unconventional, gritty, stylish, passionate look at two souls who find love in a world gone mad. Equal parts hilarious and heartbreaking, True Romance is a brilliant work of art.

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